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Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel: Vital NYC Link for 60 Years

The Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel is celebrating a birthday! On May 25, 1950, a parade of dignitaries, led by Mayor William O'Dwyer and Robert Moses, head of the newly created Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, traveled by motorcade through the brand new Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel and were welcomed on the Manhattan side by a throng of cheering well-wishers.

After more than 13 million hours of labor by teams of surveyors, engineers, draftsmen, laborers, sandhogs, ironworkers, carpenters and electricians and 10 years, including a 5-year hiatus caused by World War II shortages, the long-awaited tunnel was finally finished.

Since 1950, the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel has remained a vital link. The tunnels' two tubes, running under the East River and connecting Lower Manhattan to the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, are used by some 44,000 vehicles daily.

"Since opening day in 1950 the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel has helped bring the city together," said Bridges and Tunnels President Jim Ferrara. "Every day thousands of New Yorkers rely on the tunnel to commute to Manhattan via express buses and cars, and for the delivery of goods."

The idea to build a tunnel from south Brooklyn to Lower Manhattan first surfaced in the late 1920s, but if Robert Moses had his way there wouldn't have been a tunnel at all. Moses originally wanted to build a bridge in the same general area, but the idea was dismissed after First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt said a bridge would ruin views and destroy parkland.

Designed by renowned engineer Ole Singstad, the New York City Tunnel Authority began work on the tunnel in October 1940. The project was halted in October 1942 by the federal government because steel, iron and other construction materials were necessary for the war effort.

Work on the tunnel, the longest continuous underwater vehicular tunnel in North America, measuring 1.7 miles long between portals, resumed in 1945 under the management of the Moses-run Triborough Bridge Authority. Once the tunnel opened, the agency's name was changed to the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (TBTA) and today it is known as MTA Bridges and Tunnels.

Moses' first act when construction on the tunnel resumed was to dismiss Singstad and put engineer Ralph Smillie in charge for the duration of the job.

Today some 200 employees, including a team of 143 Bridge and Tunnel Officers, Sergeants and Lieutenants, is charged with keeping traffic moving at the tunnel, which in 2009 carried a total of 16 million vehicles.

The management team includes General Manager Renée Shepherd, who has been in charge of the tunnel since 2006, Operations Superintendent Edwin King and Maintenance Superintendent Marc Mende. Employee duties at the tunnel include aiding motorists, collecting tolls, monitoring truck check points, security and maintaining the physical condition of the tunnel and plaza area. The tunnel also has a professional engineering contingent led by Facility Engineer Robert Kushmock, whose work includes planning, executing and overseeing construction projects.

"Our employees are dedicated to ensuring safe and efficient travel for our customers, and are aware of its importance as an extremely vital transportation corridor in New York City," General Manager Shepherd said.

The Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel was a critical route for emergency vehicles during the 9/11 terrorist attack, and afterward as construction vehicles bound for Ground Zero made frequent daily crossings. The facility is also the starting point for the annual "Tunnel-to-Towers Run," commemorating the heroism of firefighter Stephen Siller, who died on 9/11 after running through the tunnel on foot in an effort to reach the towers.

Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel by the Numbers:

  • Original toll: 35 cents
  • Two tubes; four traffic lanes; 13 toll lanes
  • 16 million annual crossings (2009 figure)
  • Three ventilation buildings, located in Governors Island, Brooklyn and Manhattan
  • Air is exchanged inside the tunnel every 90 seconds.
  • 1997: the year the façade of the Manhattan vent building was featured in the "Men in Black" film, as the fictional headquarters of a secret government agency